Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Big Freeze

It's cold today. Saying it's cold in Michigan in January is probably one of the least unsurprising things you can write. It's like saying Jupiter is large, or the ocean is wet. Nevertheless, it's cold, the sort of frigidity that inspires locals to point out they're better off sleeping in the freezer than going outside. Just bleak, crackling, freeze-your-balls-to-your-shorts lack of molecular agitation, with no promise of anything better to look forward to until the spring thaw, which will occur sometime in the next twenty years or so.

It reminds me of my favorite moment during my recent trip to Malaysia. That moment involves black ice, which is not a phenomenon you find very often in tropical countries, at least not outside a cocktail.

Every once in a while my friend Tim, a local, would drop me off at his parents' house while we took a break from the weather and he needed to GPS coordinates for restaurants he wanted to drag me to next. During these rest breaks, I'd hang out with his dad, who is a riot. Tim hypothesizes that the reason we get along so well is that we're both completely full of shit.

Somehow we got on the subject of weather, so I told him my favorite story about black ice.

It happened a few years ago in the early parts of winter, sometime in mid-December. It was one of those years where the winter got a late start. The season was too early for there to be much more than a dusting of snow on the ground. I'd been visiting some friends in Lansing and it was late. I was cruising along at normal interstate speeds, when I noticed up ahead that traffic was slowing down.

Something in the situation raised my hackles. I couldn't put a finger on it, but I decided that I should just take my foot off the gas and coast to a slower velocity, without so much as breathing on the brakes. The pavement looked dry. It wasn't snowing. No drizzle. No wetness. Traffic wasn't heavy. Just normal road conditions.

After half a mile, I began to see cars in the ditches. First a sedan. Then a minivan after a couple hundred feet. And then every few hundred yards, I'd see another vehicle. I saw a cop car in the ditch. I saw an ambulance. There was a tow truck. Half a dozen normal vehicles. I even saw a county plow in the ditch, facing the wrong way with the lights still on. The only thing it was missing to be an AMC special were hordes of zombies. Probably too cold. Also, the zombies would have all fallen down.

And the whole time, the pavement looked bone dry.

I finished the drive home, which normally would have taken a half hour, in about two hours. Then I climbed up to my apartment and shook.

Black ice is freaky that way. It's a particular condition which forms when a wet road hits a fast cold snap. Ice forms without the chance to cloud up. I've walked on it before. Even up close, it's hard to see. Not only is it nigh invisible it's slick, even for ice.

You drive along and sometimes you lose the traction lottery and just go in the ditch. Don't pass "Go", don't collect two hundred dollars.

Reflexes won't save you. You can be the best driver in the world, a masterful drift racer, and you'll still find yourself doing several fast three sixties followed by a quick rooster tail into the median at fifty miles per hour. The only thing that prevents it is blind luck and keeping an eye on the weather. Sometimes you drive slow simply because black ice MIGHT be happening. You just don't know.

This is all just a part of living in northern latitudes. Most people who hear this story are nodding along at this point. A few of them are already thinking about correcting a few points I've just typed. And so it goes.

Now, when people from Michigan talk about ice, the conversation falls into a general pattern. I tell the story about black ice (and I have others) and by the time I get to the first car in the ditch, the people I'm telling said story to get a distant look in their eyes. They laugh at the appropriate points, but they're already thinking of their own stories to counter with. This is just something we do, sometimes in a comfortable dive bar over a pitcher of beer after having driven over black ice to get there.

Folks from up north can happily pass several drunken hours trading bad road stories. It's just what we do.

So, I was sitting in this nice one-story house in a tropical country, telling my story to Tim's dad, falling into the usual patterns, making the usual jokes.

At some point, I looked up and, instead of the usual "I have a better one" look, I saw an expression of complete horror. Literally, mouth hanging open.

Tim's dad is into fast cars. He used to race them. He still drives so aggressively that most of the people who ride with him get car sick, even the ones who pride themselves on iron stomachs and daredevil ways. He lives in a country where the temperature hovers around 85-90 degrees, with a crushing humidity and a regularity to the precipitation that borders on time-piece accuracy. About the only variation in the weather falls into the categories of wet or dry season or comes with the occasional monsoon.

The idea that there's a weather condition that levels the playing field so completely and without anything in the way of warning, where you can, through no fault of your own, be completely betrayed by the laws of physics, was horrifying to him. It was like finding out that there are, in some parts of the world, predatory animals who disguise themselves as public toilets.

One of the most common questions I got from the locals while visiting Malaysia was why in the hell Americans live in a place where the weather regularly tries to kill us? If it's not black ice, it's blizzards, flooding, earthquakes or tornadoes that randomly wipe out towns. They find it baffling that we'd be confronted by something like this, shrug and then rebuild.

I'd like to say it's the typical American's stubbornness or maybe our innate optimism or that the worst weather always happens on the best farmland, but I suspect it's more that we like stories. That and maybe we're too lazy to move. One or the other.

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